Sometimes when we are on the road to excellence, we get a little tired. We wish we were already there. We wish the road had a literal signpost saying “You have made it, and you can officially stop worrying and consider yourself to be awesome.” We wonder if we should have chosen something easier to do with our time. And we think that maybe there is a magic bullet, something we can do that will–Bibbidi bobbidi boo!–make us more amazing.
Let me make this part of the road simpler for you.
There are no short cuts. There are no magic bullets. There are no sure things. There are no easy paths. So if you want something quick and easy, excellence isn’t the end goal for you.
Sure, there are activities beyond diligent practice you can do that will help you progress. In writing, these include attending workshops, reading slush, seeking out critique experiences, reading craft books like The 10% Solution, etc. In singing, these include participating in master classes and workshops, auditioning, obtaining performance opportunities (however humble), studying with different teachers, etc. But none of these methods are foolproof, and not all of them will pan out.
Take the various Clarion workshops, for example. Working professional writers often cite their Clarion experience as being pivotal in their development as writers. These are the stories about Clarion that we hear most often. But then there are the writers like Alexandra MacKenzie, who took ten years after the workshop to be ready to learn from one of her instructors. Because you can’t always control the timing of these sorts of things. And there are also the Clarion attendees who stopped writing altogether; these are the ones we hear about the least, and yet they assuredly exist. Why? Because no way of leveling up is foolproof. No way of advancing works for every single person.
The path to excellence doesn’t often go flat like a plateau only to suddenly rocket steeply upwards into awesomeness. It is a gradual process, a long slow incline upwards. As Seth Godin says, it is a series of hills, one after another. Those who continue to improve keep choosing new hills to climb that are just on the edge of their abilities.
Sometimes the path feels like a flat-line that suddenly springs up, but this is an illusion. I saw it all the time with my students in voice lessons. They would work steadily and gradually improve, so gradually that they didn’t even notice it happening. They would struggle with a concept and it wouldn’t quite be clicking, and they’d get frustrated and discouraged. At this stage in the process, it was my job as the teacher to keep pushing them, keep encouraging them, keep them singing even if they were ready to throw in the towel. And then inevitably, they’d finally understand. Their bodies would finally coordinate correctly, the muscle memory would finally develop, the ideas we were talking about would finally make actual instead of theoretical sense. And they’d experience a leap in ability. A leap that was really a slow mounting of ability all along.
That leap in ability is just around the corner for all of us. If we practice diligently and intelligently (directed practice as opposed to blind repetition), we are pushing ourselves forward along the path. The leap may come next week or it may come next year. It may come after we take a month-long break or it may come after a few weeks of intense practice. We don’t know when it will come. Excellence requires us to have the faith to sustain us while we work.
We must believe the leap will come. But it won’t come because of magic. It will come because of our own hard work.